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`America in decline' budding issue of election. Import gap and ingratitude of US allies, trade partners begin to grate

``Put America first.'' Across the United States, from the textile mills of South Carolina to the auto plants in Illinois, there's a pervasive sentiment that it is time for America to look after its own. It could become a major element of the emerging political debate in the 1988 election.

Political experts say there is growing anxiety at the grass roots about America's economic future, despite low inflation, low unemployment, and steady growth over the past five years.

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They say previous concerns about America's military strength have been replaced by new worries about the nation's economic vulnerability. This concern is reaching into middle-class families who once felt secure.

After decades of foreign aid, brush-fire wars, and costly military alliances, American voters are turning inward. They believe many of their sacrifices to help other nations have been met with ingratitude and disdain. And now they see their economic futures threatened by foreign competition. It is time, they believe, to get back to basics, and strengthen the nation's economic foundations.

Presidential candidates have sensed these broad concerns, and have tried to address them.

Richard Gephardt talks about getting tough with America's trading partners. George Bush says the answer is better education. Robert Dole wants the NATO allies to pick up more of the costs of defending Europe. Jesse Jackson blames multinational corporations for moving jobs to low-wage countries.

But experts say none of the candidates has yet pulled the issues together into a coherent package.

Larry Hansen, an analyst with the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, says there is a ``high level of inchoate anxiety about this binge [of deficits] we have. There's great anxiety among the middle class.

``But no candidate has grabbed that family of issues by the neck and dealt with it seriously.''

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Kevin Phillips, editor of The American Political Report, calls the emerging issue ``economic nationalism.''

Mr. Phillips suggests that President Reagan and the Republicans, who have a Rambo image on military matters, could feel a backlash if they turn out to be wimps on the issue of economic nationalism.

Phillips says we could see among voters ``a new frustration'' with conservatives if they are not willing to ``defend US industries and markets'' and ``demand foreign market access [and] defense burden-sharing from our trading partners.''

Republicans could be hurt on this issue in 1988 just as liberals were hurt by perceptions that they were weak on defense during the past two decades, Phillips suggests.

This potentially potent issue has been studied over a period of months by the Roosevelt Center, which has brought together groups of voters in primary and caucus states. The latest focus-group sessions, held in Illinois, found a split among voters about what should be done.

Republicans in the focus groups were inclined to look for solutions within the United States, and to suggest that this country is to blame for most of its problems in competing with nations like Japan. Republicans think the solutions lie in better education, lower taxes, government efficiency, improved business management, and other domestic actions.

Swing Democrats (those who voted for Ronald Reagan) generally agree with Republicans on this issue. They say America's trade problems, for example, are primarily the US's own fault.

Regular Democrats, however, want quick, tough action aimed at US trading partners. They support legislation that would restrict imports and impose ``fairness'' on the trading system. They favor better education, but worry that even if America were operating at peak efficiency, unfair trade practices by other nations could depress American wages, the Roosevelt study found.

Political pollsters, such as Richard Wirthlin, who works for Robert Dole's campaign, find these issues escalating among GOP voters.

The budget deficit was considered a serious problem by only 2 or 3 percent of Republican voters two years ago. Now it is up to 11 to 14 percent in Dr. Wirthlin's polls as voters begin to tie the deficit together with other economic concerns.

Mr. Hansen of the Roosevelt Center says that in 1984, when Walter Mondale tried to make the deficits an issue, he failed because voters couldn't see the connection between deficits and their economic futures.

That has changed. Today many voters see everything linked: budget and trade deficits, declining test scores, poor management, flabby government, defense waste, and corporate greed. Together, they threaten America's future.

This new inward focus by voters coincides with a feeling that it is time to pull back overseas. As one Republican, identified only as ``Bob,'' told a Roosevelt focus group in Illinois:

``The country has to think of itself first. ... More attention should be given [to] solving American problems rather than trying to solve somebody else's problems when we have no control over them or any vested interest in them.''

He concluded: ``We don't need all 400,000 troops over in Europe. ... When people in Europe don't think enough to invest in their own protection and count on us for their protection, it's just a waste of effort.''

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